Obama and Idea Politics

When was it that we switched away from the idea politics that tended to predominate in Lincoln’s day to the personality politics of the cult of the gentleman (see; “What Killed the GOP“) in Washington?

The answer is actually rather easy to find, and shows us just how damaging personality politics taken to an extreme can be.

Any professor of communication will tell you that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats were a watershed for modern communication. His use of the radio marked the first such instance by a national level politician in our history. Previous to the fireside chats, Presidents would generally rely on newspapers to carry reprints of speeches or articles about what the White House was trying to communicate, or for the new medium of radio to broadcast a formal speech, much as newspapers had been printing up such speeches since the early days of the republic. The fireside chats were different, and reflected a man who not only mastered a revolutionary communications medium but took that mastery to it’s full conclusion, changing our political game in the united States for almost a hundred years.

FDR did not, in general, hold views closely in line with the ideas of most average Americans at the time. When speaking about his swearing in ceremony for his second term, he said that when it came to the words “support the Constitution of the United States,” he thought, “Yes, but it’s the Constitution as I understand it, flexible enough to meet any new problem of democracy – not the kind of Constitution your court has raised up as a barrier to progress and democracy.”

Americans across the country at the time would have found such ideas rather alien. Ever since Lincoln had won his political battle against those who had tried to intentionally loosely interpret the meaning of both the constitution and the declaration of independence in order to allow for slavery in the mid 19th century, a view had prevailed in America that those documents meant what they said. Most voters in Roosevelt’s day would be considered more or less “conservative” by today’s standards, yet FDR sought government control over industry after industry, created a top-down Federal Bureaucracy that had never existed in this country, ran up against the Supreme Court in his fight to nationalize huge sections of the economy, and ran against the grain on a host of ideological questions.

Two things explain his popularity despite this. The first is radio; the second, the advent of World War II. In the case of the first, a new communications medium changed the way in which the political debate was conducted. FDR could sound as if he were sitting next to you in your living room, giving a fireside chat from the White House, the tubes of your radio gently glowing in a dim-lit, relaxed evening after work. He could come across like a friend you had a conversation with, a neighbor, more than simply a politician. The fact that you do not agree with everything your neighbor says does not make you not like them, and thus, whereas in the mid 19th century, when a politician wrote a speech with the conscious knowledge that it would be printed in newspapers and should be readable in that medium, with radio, the very sound of one’s voice had value. If you read a speech in a paper, you went right for the ideas. There is no emotion behind which ideas can hide; just black and white ink. With radio; you applied different standards to the speaker. Sure you may not always agree with FDR, but you liked FDR, and thus likability, personality, and presence could trump ideology in politics.

This set the stage for the 20th century. Television acted as a mere extension of radio in this regard. With the addition of TV to political communication, appearance became a factor as well as personality and presence. In result though, TV was not very different from the radio which preceded it, and the development of personality politics continued to evolve and be refined until the Presidency of Bill Clinton, probably the most sophisticated personality politician ever.

Clinton was a master of saying something that was more or less meaningless, and doing so in a way that would specifically target a given electoral group with a specific part of the “Clinton personality”. This was a well thought out process, very carefully worked out with the help of a sophisticated campaign staff, and every gesture, statement, word, and fake tear was engineered to garner a specific vote from a specific slice of the demographic pie. This was why his enemies found him so incredibly insincere, yet he remained on top of the poll numbers and managed to float through his Presidency with approval ratings shockingly intact despite several major scandals. Bill Clinton did FDR one better; instead of an ideology that was basically counter to the prevailing thought of his day, he focused so much on personality that it would be hard to pinpoint any specific ideology at all. This is why pundits today have such a hard time delineating what a “Clinton doctrine”, “Bush doctrine”, or “Obama doctrine” actually consists of in terms of ideas, because we have had a hundred years of personality politics and even if a President is ideologically consistent (which has not happened in a long time), we lack the tools to analyze thought and ideology on a useful level.

President George W. Bush was the last of the personality politicians in the White House. New media are returning us to a focus on the written word, and in the internet-driven media environment; being personable on a two minute TV clip is not nearly enough. When the TV cameras shut off, a blogger with a video camera catches a public figure off guard and exposed, and posts the result on youtube, where any number of people can view the result, and the clip can then even recirculate back to TV was networks pick it up as a story. Bloggers dissect press releases almost instantly, criticizing and commenting as fast as they are put out, and our modern technology allows for a much more two-way communication between the voter and the elected official. If you cannot hold your own in such a back and forth debate, no amount of fake tears will help you. No number of fireside chats, in our massively over saturated media environment, will cover for your ideology being at odds with people who can dissect it in black and white words on a screen. Bush, unfortunately, was not an ideology-driven President. He focused on relationships, not ideas. He ran on character and judgment, not hard policy. He was quite accessible by the standards of the 20th century; giving carefully crafted TV speeches and press releases at regular intervals, but in the age of the instant online debate, he seemed closed off and anachronistic.

Obama has a unique challenge. His record is that of a strict ideologue. I am convinced that this is why Hillary Clinton was sure he would not win. His ideas were too hard to the left to win the center in a Presidential contest. Yet he won, because he had an ideology that was consistent and whether you agreed with it or not, that was something we could appreciate. Now, he faces a real challenge, and has stumbled a bit trying to deal with the problem of being a real 21st century President. His policies, budget, and actual actions are just as consistently ideological as always. He has massively expanded the size of government beyond the scope of any combination of Presidents in our history. He has begun to cut only one, small section of the Federal Bureaucracy; specifically, the military, while bloating all else. He has gone out and done his best to be conciliatory and strike a new tone with other nations, and entered into agreements at the G-20 that almost reflect a Wilsonian liberalism, and surely go beyond the bounds most Americans would put on our giving away of sovereignty. Yet he maintains a very moderate, almost conservative sounding, personable demeanor on television. He speaks of going back to a more responsible era in economics, even as we double the national money supply and guarantee inflation in the future. His TV persona clashes to such a tremendous degree with his policy persona, that we are now watching a strange polarization occur in his first 100 days in office. He is the most liked/hated President we have ever had. What I mean by this is that his supporters are wildly enthusiastic, while his detractors are far more negative about him than is historically normal this early in a Presidency.

This strange polarization I attribute to the effect of new media versus old. Most people in the USA still place most trust in the medium of Television for their political information. Even as TV is forced to polarize right and left by the power of feedback and new media, people still watch a traditional evening news type broadcast. Increasingly, we are likely to see a break between the people who view the President through the lens of new media and those who view him through the lens of the evening news.

As Obama’s still-consistent ideology inevitably alienates the middle ground in America, he will see a shift in his support. A left leaning netroots will support him online, as well as non-internet savvy viewers of left leaning media, while the rest of the country will drift away little by little. He will try to increase the moderate, centrist, and even conservative sounding tone of his public TV statements, which will only further highlight the difference between statement and policy, and this will not help. How long this takes will determine if he can successfully compete for a second term. At the moment, I’d give him somewhat less than even odds of making it through a second election; a far lower score than one would traditionally attribute to an incumbent President.

Obama has mastered the first prerequisite of our new communications age; but he is no FDR. He cannot make full use of the openness of the new medium because his centrist TV rhetoric does not match his ideologically driven policy choices. In this new era, a politician must consistently follow an ideological path, but this path must be somewhat more in line with the bulk of our electorate, and their statements must match their actions. With the coming of the internet age, we will know if they do not, because there simply isn’t anywhere to hide.

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~ by Jubal Biggs on April 23, 2009.

2 Responses to “Obama and Idea Politics”

  1. nice first read. i’ll be back.

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